Musharraf Boom Bypasses Villages, Boosting Bhutto Party Support
By Naween A. Mangi, Bloomberg.com
Feb. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Mohammed Shahabuddin, a laborer in the village of Khairo Dero, hasn't seen much evidence of the economic boom that's tripled property values in Pakistan's cities. He earns 100 rupees ($1.60) a day in a brick kiln -- when he can find work -- and he's clear about who's to blame.
President Pervez Musharraf ``has ruined us beyond our worst imagination,'' says Shahabuddin, 32. ``We've always eaten plain, rough bread because we could never afford anything else. Under Musharraf, even that is being taken away from us.''
His frustration with eight years of one-man rule is shared by many village dwellers, who account for 70 percent of Pakistan's population. Their poverty helps explain why support for Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party in the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections goes well beyond sympathy following her Dec. 27 assassination.
``This time, there is a PPP wave because the rural poor think the PPP will represent their interests,'' says Kaiser Bengali, a political economist at the Collective for Social Science Research, a Karachi, Pakistan-based research organization.
Nowhere is this more evident than in southern Pakistan's Sindh province, the Bhutto clan's ancestral home. The graves of Benazir and her father, Zulfikar Ali, both former prime ministers, are only 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from Khairo Dero, whose 10,000 residents live in houses made of plastered mud.
Most work on farms owned by large landholders and earn an average of 66 cents a day. Few have electricity or telephones, and they fuel their primitive stoves with buffalo dung dried on the walls. The village's sanitation system collapsed because it wasn't maintained after Benazir ordered it built in 1996.
``Despair and unemployment is ruining our village,'' says Ejaz Ali, who works in a biscuit factory in the nearby city of Larkana. ``Poverty and a lack of any facilities have lead to an increase in robberies, crime and gambling.''
It isn't clear how much influence villagers' votes will have on the outcome of the elections, which were postponed from Jan. 8 because of rioting after Bhutto's death. Analysts say Pakistan's military-dominated governments have historically used intelligence agencies to unite their civilian allies and divide opponents, especially during election campaigns.
Still, if the PPP and former Prime Minister Mohammad Nawaz Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League win two-thirds of the 272 seats being contested, they may be able to change the constitution and reign in Musharraf's powers or even impeach the president.
`10 Million Votes'
``If the political process moves on, politicians will realize that while landlords have 10,000 votes, peasants have 10 million votes,'' Bengali says.
On paper, the economy never looked better. Growth since July 2002 has averaged 7.5 percent a year, and gross domestic product per person increased to $925 in June 2007 from $501 in June 2001. Rising wealth helped drive car sales up 350 percent since July 2000, and property values have tripled in three years.
That's a sharp contrast with 1999, when then-General Musharraf, who has since stepped down from his military post, ousted Sharif, 58, in a coup. South Asia's second biggest economy was on the verge of defaulting on $38 billion in overseas debt, and foreign-exchange reserves equaled just two weeks of imports.
After Musharraf, 64, allied with President George W. Bush in the war on terrorism in 2001, the U.S. poured in $10 billion in aid. Pakistan's international-debt payments were rescheduled, money sent home by Pakistanis working overseas quadrupled and the stability of Musharraf's government attracted financing for roads, bridges and ports.
Overseas investment rose to a record $6 billion last year, and foreign-exchange reserves climbed to more than $16 billion from less than $1 billion when Musharraf took over.
Sakib Sherani, chief economist at ABN Amro Bank in Islamabad, says the growth ``has been quite concentrated'' in urban areas, while recent price increases and shortages of flour and electricity have hit the rest of Pakistan hard. ``The landless rural poor appear to be worse off,'' he says.
Faster growth nationwide is also fuelling inflation, which averaged 7.6 percent in 2007, compared with 2.5 percent during the last parliamentary elections in 2002. Wheat prices have risen by more than 20 percent since November because the government failed to curb hoarding and illegal exports, which led to a shortage in the domestic market. The cost of food rose 12.2 percent in December from a year earlier.
``Under Zulfikar Bhutto, food was cheap,'' says Mohammed Ramzan, a 75-year-old farm worker. ``Under Benazir, food was cheap. Now, I earn 100 rupees a day, and it costs at least 200 rupees a day to feed the 13 people in my family. So sometimes we borrow and sometimes we beg.''
Inflation may rise further as people hoard essential commodities ahead of the elections, fearing violence if opposition parties don't accept the results.
Violence or not, the people of Khairo Dero know which party they'll support.
``We usually vote for whoever the landlord tells us to,'' says Mumtaz Ali Mirani, a 46-year-old mason. ``But Benazir was loyal to the poor. She died for us; we're going to vote for her. What Musharraf has done for us is to double the price of flour.''
To contact the reporter on this story: Naween A. Mangi in Khairo Dero, Pakistan, at email@example.com .